The release of “The Killer Within” sure has uncanny timing. Right after this documentary was screened at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, a maniacal Virginia Tech student decided to go on a rampage. But enough about that: the promise of lasting infamy likely drove the megalomania behind the shooter’s actions. So I won’t prolong his legacy any further.
“The Killer Within,” however, looks back to a situation that almost yielded similar results. One night in 1955, a Swarthmore College student brought a small arsenal into a dormitory with the intention of murdering everyone residing there. Though after killing one victim, he came to his senses and reported his crime.
Unearthing such an old tale would create fodder for a diverting hour-long special on Court TV. But this engaging film focuses on the killer in 2005, a man who, since his release from an institution five years after his crime, has become a University of Arizona professor and a top scholar in the field of environmental psychology.
As the film opens, we learn that Dr. Robert Bechtel shared his secret with his wife before they married, but that he did not reveal it to his daughter and his stepdaughter until they were late teens. And we soon learn that he will reveal the story to his wife’s family, and to the university that employs him, for the first time.
Director Macky Alston’s film bears witness to Carrah Bechtel coping with the news about her father. Thus, what appears to be a crime documentary on the surface becomes one about a family suffering and accepting the fact that its heroic figure is also a cold-blooded killer. Carrah, who appears lively in archived footage and photos, is now emotionally overburdened with researching her father’s crime. For at the center of the case is the question of whether Bechtel really did suffer abuse from his Swarthmore classmates, which he claims drove him to murder. While his daughter searches through archives for clues and questions if there is a “past tense for killer,” she must accept that her life is an occurrence yielded by chance: if her father were convicted today, he would not have been released early on the basis of temporary insanity. (Courts were much more lenient about the charge in the 1950s.)
Though the Bechtels’ situation is enough to drive a narrative, director Alston finds another thread to leave the film uncompromising: after Bechtel revealed the news to the college community, a Sedona, Arizona resident found the newspaper coverage of it heartwrenching. This man was John H. Strozier Jr., the brother of the murdered Holmes Strozier. Bechtel’s status as a respected scholar is surprising news for him, but Bechtel’s message surrounding his revelation – that he is trying to educate students about bullying – infuriates Strozier, since he claims that his brother never did any such thing to Bechtel.
The film’s opening introduction to the Bechtel family members and its secret feels overlong: the narrative strives for suspense that need not appear. The opening score also detracts from the film’s effect, as a melody of happy chimes drastically shifts to a brooding dirge of cellos. Unfortunately, this music leaves the audience anticipating later cumbersome uses of sound that, thankfully, do not appear. But from here on, the facts of the case are revealed at a controlled pace. Alston knows how to incorporate issues when we need them addressed: the sorrowful but vengeful John Strozier is revealed right when the audience can’t stand a free-and-clear Bechtel any longer.
Like “Paradise Lost,” which documents the convicted child-murderers known as “The West Memphis Three,” “The Killer Within” patiently investigates an eerily enigmatic subject. While Dr. Bechtel epitomizes the successful family man, he holds a dark presence in the film. When traveling with his wife and two daughters to important locations, including the scene of the crime and the hospital where he was institutionalized, he regards both places with a scientist’s objectivity. While investigating the façade of the dormitory or his cluttered room in the institution, he appears more like a ghost haunting his family than a supporter helping them understand. His appearance in talking-head interviews proves just as creepy: he shows an emotional distance to his crime and a lack of empathy about almost anything related to it.
But we are left unconvinced, since Bechtel appears articulate, creditable as a teacher and intellect, and ever-devoted to his family. Though unable to reveal as much information as the engrossing “Capturing the Friedmans,” “The Killer Within” captures another haunted family and leaves us guessing about its patriarch.